Getting It Right: An Outstanding Diversity Initiative Shows The Way

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Cooper will you tell our readers something about your
professional experience?

Cooper: Following about a dozen years of teaching at the University of
Pittsburgh Law School and the City University of New York, and several years in
private practice, I became the Director of Real Estate at the Urban Development
Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, and, just before coming to Kirkpatrick
& Lockhart, I was the general counsel for the Housing Authority of the City
of Pittsburgh.

Editor: Would you tell us about the things that attracted you to
Kirkpatrick & Lockhart?

Cooper: I met with the Chairman of the Management Committee to discuss
his and the Committee's idea of having someone at the management level of the
firm to help establish the goals and objectives of a really robust diversity
initiative and to then implement them. I believed that I was helping to get the
initiative on track, but when I came to understand that I was under
consideration for the position of Chief Diversity Officer I looked upon it as a
wonderful opportunity to ensure that something very important be achieved.

Editor: The firm has a long-standing and unusually strong commitment to
diversity. This did not just happen. Can you tell us something about the origin
of this commitment?

Cooper: During the 1990s the firm attempted to become more
diversified. The initial results were disappointing. In late 1998 the firm
brought in a consulting firm, and one of the results of that exercise was the
creation of a firm-wide diversity committee. When the committee was established,
it had representation from all of the firm's five offices. Today we have 12
offices, all of which are represented on the committee, and the group continues
to be chaired by an African American partner from our Los Angeles office, Paul
Sweeney, who is also the Administrative Partner of that office, and I think his
presence reflects how seriously the firm takes its diversity initiative.

The committee itself is representative of the diversity of the firm. It
includes men and women, representatives from the gay and lesbian community,
African Americans, Latino, Asian Americans and majority representatives also. We
have tried to ensure that everyone has a voice. One of my responsibilities is to
go from office to office to get feedback on our initiatives, and I have learned
that someone in my position must be a good listener.

Editor: Would you tell us about your responsibilities as Chief Diversity
Officer? For starters, to whom do you report?

Cooper: I report directly to Peter Kalis, Chairman of the Management
Committee, and I also attend meetings of the Management Committee. My
responsibilities are broadly defined, and they concern both the recruiting and
the retention aspects of the firm's diversity initiative. In the latter area, I
have two people who report to me. I work closely with the Chief Officer for
Recruitment and Development, Susan Fried. We are focused on professional
development for our associates and on the administration of our mentoring
program, respectively. They are available to all of the firm's offices to
support that office's needs. For example, if an associate requires tutoring in
oral presentation or in brief writing, we will see that the right program or
support is made available. With respect to mentoring, all of our associates,
from entry through the end of their second year, are part of the program. Our
mentors are volunteers, and they are evaluated on their effectiveness. They are
advocates for the young lawyers they are mentoring, and they are expected to
work with them on any deficiencies that may need attention. At this point the
program is only two years old, so the returns are not in as yet on how effective
it is. The anecdotal assessment is that it has been very successful, and I
believe it is something of an honor at the firm to be a mentor. Because these
are the partners who are responsible for the legacy we are trying to pass down,
we think it is important to come up with some sort of recognition of the
contribution they are making. That has not been finalized as yet, but the
discussion is underway.

Editor: There have obviously been some very positive moments in your
experience as Chief Diversity Officer. I'm sure there have been some challenges,
too.

Cooper: Yes. One challenge is getting good assignments for young
associates on a regular basis. Much of what we do in a large law firm is not
particularly dramatic. To keep the associates interested, we must develop a way
to get a variety of good work experiences into their hands. A second challenge
has to do with time management. Much of this relates to the balance of life
issues that young women associates in particular face. To this end, we have
hired a young woman who has the title of Director of Professional and Personal
Life Integration. I hasten to add, the issue of attaining a proper balance
between one's professional and personal life is not just a woman's issue. There
are plenty of men here who wish to spend as much time as possible with their
families. The challenge is to make that possible, and we are working on it.
We d o understand that it is no answer to tell a young associate that he
or she is going to be making a lot of money and that that will take care
of the matter.

Editor: It is very unusual to find a law firm that buys into such a
philosophy.

Cooper: Well, we don't just do what everyone else is doing.
We look at other firms, but we have a particular, and very personalized, culture
at K&LNG, and we do not implement any program or initiative without
deliberating on how it might play out in this environment. Much of the credit
for this approach must be given to the Chair of our Management Committee.

Editor: I understand that the firm will soon publish a very extensive
report on its culture of diversity and the efforts it has made to advance its
diversity agenda. What is the origin of this project?

Cooper: Several years down the road with our diversity
initiative, we realized that we had accumulated an extraordinary amount of
information - case analyses, news articles and interviews, lectures and
memoranda, even a very favorably received law review article of mine - that
might be helpful to others. We are approached by, and work with, other
organizations all the time, and I mention the ABA Diversity Initiative and the
Pennsylvania Bar Association Diversity Task Force as but two examples of ongoing
relationships. In response to this interest, the report - which is a compendium
of our experiences - is meant to enable us to take stock of where we have been,
what we have learned and where to take the next steps, and, at the same time, to
benefit others similarly inclined. It is, in effect, a road map as to how a law
firm can go about transforming itself into one of the best in the country in
terms of diversity.

Editor: Is there a particular audience that you are trying to reach with
the report?

Cooper: It is directed at law firms and at bar
associations that work with law firms trying to become more diverse. And, of
course, at the academic institutions that are sending their graduates to the
firms. This is the decade of diversity. You will recall that in the 2003 United
States Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, with Justice
O'Connor writing for the majority, the Court agreed with the University of
Michigan's assertion that diversity was a compelling state interest. Justice
O'Connor concluded her opinion by saying that, after years of trying to get this
right, we have made progress but have not really managed to resolve it. She
indicated that we had about 25 years to do just that. The military has done a
good job, and corporate America is not far behind, but the law firms have some
distance to cover. I think the legal profession is going to implement the
changes that are necessary to reflect the changing face of our nation, and I
take particular pride in the fact that K&LNG is among the leaders in this
initiative. When I joined the firm I was given a mandate to change not just the
culture of the firm but also the culture of the legal profession. I am not sure,
but I think that I am alone among chief diversity officers in having such a
mandate.

Editor: You've stated publicly that diversity is not a commodity but
rather a value that adds to the quality of life in a law firm environment. Would
you tell us about what you've seen in terms of the impact of your efforts on the
morale of people within the firm?

Cooper: I think that a clearly evidenced commitment
to diversity on the part of a law firm results - among a great many other
things, of course - in people staying longer. The fact that they are part of a
firm which has placed such a high value on this initiative makes them feel good
about themselves, and that serves the cause of retention.

Law firms have a leadership responsibility in our country. What law firms
say, and more importantly what they do, is important. At a time when the
educational system in our country is failing, and failing spectacularly for our
minority communities, it is essential for law firms to stand up and be heard on
what is a crucial issue - education - for long-term law firm survival. A real
commitment to diversity - and not just lip service - is the way in which they
can make themselves heard. Their minority partners serve as role models for
young people all over the county. The arithmetic here is pretty simple: it costs
more to have someone in prison than in college. And a college graduate is a
productive member of society for the rest of his or her life. Yet today there
are more young African American males in prison than in college. We must address
this.

Editor: I think you've put your finger on a major problem. It's also a
practical problem for a law firm. Young minority law graduates, and minority
males, in particular, are few and far between. Everybody wants them. There is a
lot of competition. How do you go about differentiating K&LNG from everybody
else and getting them in the door?

Cooper: Good question. Getting to good young people during their
second year of law school is a little late, so we are trying to identify and
connect with them at an earlier point. We have K&LNG lawyers teaching
elementary school children about civic responsibility, democracy and what it
means to be a citizen of a free country. We have a high school program, and we
are trying to project role models for young people in inner city schools. With
the assistance of the ABA, I am recruiting lawyers to talk to them about staying
in school. This kind of activity is not going to affect our current profits, but
10 years from now, or 20, when the work force is going to look very different
from what it is today, it may well enhance our ability to survive and prosper.
And it is the right thing to do. At K&LNG we have a leadership that
understands that it is crucial to plant the seed today if one is to harvest
tomorrow.

Please email the interviewee at ccooper@klng.com with questions about this
interview.